MELBOURNE, Australia – It was the day before the Australian Open, and the Park Hotel in Melbourne’s Carlton area was closed and only a few pedestrians walked past the dusty, deserted entrance on a quiet Sunday.
Quite a different scene from last year, when Novak Djokovic, the world’s No. 1 tennis player, was in custody at Carlton ahead of the Open. He was set to be kicked out by the Australian government and miss the tournament after arriving in the country unvaccinated against coronavirus and losing his last resort in court.
“I just think it was all totally embarrassing and could have been avoided,” said Ailsa McDermid, a Melburnian who passed by on Sunday with a shopping bag in each hand and looked up at the now vacant hotel.
Its large sign was covered in a dark tarp, which seemed an apt metaphor: The Djokovic Affair made global news in January 2022, dominating conversations ahead of the first Grand Slam event of the year, which Djokovic has won nine times, a men’s tournament record.
But a year later, city, country and sport seem eager to move on while returning to tennis as usual.
The Australian Open “will mark a welcome return to normal after three years of bushfires, pandemic and fury last year over Novak Djokovic’s vaccination status,” wrote The Age, one of the major Melbourne newspapers, in an editorial posted online on Sunday with the headline “Let’s enjoy great tennis, pure and simple.”
Djokovic, 35, remains one of the few top professional tennis players not to have been vaccinated against the coronavirus, but Australia, which had some of the strictest restrictions in the world during the pandemic, does not require no more proof of vaccination or negative test for entry. in the country, except for travelers from China.
Although Djokovic was automatically banned from Australia for three years following his deportation, Australia’s new government opted to overturn that ban in November, and the Serb returned to a welcome just as warm as Saturday’s sweltering Melbourne weather. .
He received acclaim in Adelaide as he won a tournament lead against a strong field, and he received louder, more vocal support on Friday night as he played an intermittently light and intense practice match in Rod Laver Arena with Australian Nick Kyrgios in front of a capacity crowd of 15,000 who had bought the available tickets within an hour.
“Honestly, I was very moved walking onto the pitch with the welcome I received,” Djokovic said on Saturday. “I didn’t know how it was going to be after the events of last year. I am very grateful for the kind of energy and welcome, love and support that I have received.
There is still a lot of resistance to Djokovic’s presence in Australia. In December, the Sydney Morning Herald commissioned a national poll in which 41% of respondents said he should not be allowed to stay in the country and play at the Australian Open. Only 30% clearly supported his participation and 29% said they did not have a strong opinion on the matter.
But those mixed feelings haven’t been noticeable (or audible) during his matches so far, and he was relaxed enough on Friday night to dance to the shifts and squirm while waiting to return Kyrgios’ serve.
“If I hold a grudge, probably if I can’t move on, I wouldn’t be here,” he said. “Also, I have to say that the number of positive experiences I had in Australia perhaps outweighs the negative experience of last year. My impression of Australia, my view of Australia, has always been very positive, and that was reflected in my performance.
Djokovic won the first of his 21 Grand Slam titles at the Australian Open in 2008, then beating No. 1 Roger Federer in straight sets along the way – and reserved some of his best tennis for the hard courts from Melbourne Park. He has a brilliant and stellar record of 82-8 in singles at the tournament and has never lost in the final. From the early years of his career, he received particularly vocal support from Australia’s large Serbian population, and there were Serbian flags galore on Friday night, just as there were last year. outside the Park Hotel as supporters protested his detention.
But the cheers this year came from a much larger fan base.
“Australians have a bit of a big poppy syndrome, so they like to shoot people when they get too big,” said Michaela Kennedy, 26, a Melbourne lawyer who attended Friday’s practice match. “But they also like a comeback story, and now Novak is a comeback story. So that’s how it works. »
The context has certainly changed in Melbourne. When Djokovic arrived in January 2022, the population was still reeling from the series of strict confinements and travel restrictions that had separated some family members. In an interview last week with Australian network Channel Nine, Djokovic said he understood the anger of Australians after initially being allowed into the country.
“I understand it’s been a frustrating time for a lot of people around the world, especially here in Australia for two years,” he said. “So I understand that when the media writes in a certain way about a guy who tried to come in without a vaccine, people say, ‘Wait, wait a second. Why is he allowed in when a lot of people aren’t can’t or aren’t allowed to come from anywhere in the world to their own country so I understand why they were frustrated but again I have to say the media presented themselves in a way completely wrong.
According to Djokovic, he was “just following the rules” and had “valid papers”, including the exemption which had been validated by an independent body. (He failed to note on arrival that he had visited Spain shortly before coming to Australia.)
There was clearly miscommunication, or perhaps rivalry, between the regional government of Victoria, which initially supported the visa, and the federal government, which rescinded it. Djokovic surely wouldn’t have flown to Melbourne if he hadn’t believed he had what he needed to get in. Eventually he was deported by Alex Hawke, then immigration minister, not because of a visa irregularity but because it was deemed in the public interest to prevent him from becoming a rallying point for the anti-vaccination movement in Australia.
Despite the debacle, the fallout for Australian tennis has been minimal. Craig Tiley, Australian Open Tournament Director and Managing Director of Tennis Australia, remained in his post with his main support team. He didn’t respond to interview requests and didn’t explain in detail how the mixed signals involving Djokovic happened, but he told the Australian newspaper last week that he “knew the truth” and was confident. is inspired by it.
“Would I have preferred that this had not happened? Absolutely,” Tiley said. “Personally, it was a very difficult time, but I was more concerned about our team and our staff who were affected indirectly and in some cases directly affected by some of the extreme negativity and blame games that took place. But at at the end of the day, we were just doing our best.
What has changed is the Park Hotel, long used as a place of detention for asylum seekers, some of whom had been confined there for nine years in often spartan conditions, prompting protests from human rights groups. man in Australia. But Djokovic’s arrival intensified the spotlight, and in April the last inmates at the facility were released on short-term visas.
“In that regard, Novak has done the refugees a favor,” said Ian Rintoul, spokesperson for the Refugee Action Coalition, in an interview with Code Sports.
Djokovic expressed his joy for the refugees who were freed. “I was there for a week and I can’t imagine how they felt for nine years,” he said in May.
The Park Hotel’s future remains uncertain, but Djokovic has undoubtedly improved his accommodation in 2023, and despite playing with a lingering hamstring injury, he’s moving well enough to be rightly considered a great. favorite to win again in Melbourne.
That would allow him to tie Rafael Nadal, who won the title here last year, for the men’s record 22 Grand Slam singles titles.
I asked Djokovic on Saturday if that was a motivation.
“Of course it is,” he replied. “I like my chances. I always like my chances. I train as hard as anyone else. There are a lot of youngsters now who are very hungry, who want to win.
Djokovic added: “The experience of being in these kind of special circumstances helps me have the right approach and do things right, because I know that when I’m healthy and playing my best on this ground, I really have chances against anyone.”